(NNPA)—While most of the media nation was transfixed by a diversionary-racist smear campaign against United States Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod on the issue of perceived racial animus—an issue deserving full attention on another day—the president signed legislation to extend unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed. By the president’s signature, the jobless were given a little relief to their lack of financial resources in a critically depressing economic period many refer to as the Great Recession.
The legislation extended unemployment benefits for 99 weeks. Prior to the extension unemployed Americans who receive federal benefits had been waiting for seven weeks without money while Republican members of Congress held up legislation because “extending benefits would hurt the national debt unless cuts could be made in other areas of the federal budget (mostly programs helping the poor and the elderly). Congressional filibusters (deliberate blockage of legislation) were used by national Republicans for the flimsiest of reasons in opposing benefit extension. Among them, unemployment benefits:
Do not help economic recovery; only the private sector can solve economic issues affecting the poor; benefits reduce people’s desire to look for work; and the fixing the national debt is more important than feeding the poor. However, the issue of how to address unemployment benefits belies the 30-year war on the poor. In 1980, President Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned politician, played the role of a reverse Robin Hood by stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. Reagan’s rationale was the economic recovery “trickles down” to the less fortunate. Most recently, President George W. Bush, in his eight-year term of office, cut taxes for the top 2 percent of Americans (who did not need or ask for tax break) while cutting programs for the poor such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, not to mention allowing American companies tax breaks while exporting jobs to cheaper labor markets.
The result of the war on the poor is that most Americans are unemployed or underemployed. Officially, according to a recent Duke University study, national poverty has increased 5 percent in the past four years. Therefore, putting America back to work is the nation’s highest need. Yes, President Obama and Congress have passed modest legislation around health care reform, financial reform and an extension of unemployment insurance, but job creation is paramount. Of the most viable short-term possible legislative solutions has been offered by Michigan Congressman John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act” (House Resolution 5204) seeks to create a full employment society by 2020. The legislation is modeled after full employment legislation offered by Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey and California Rep. Augustus Hawkins that was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.
Under the proposed legislation a trust fund would be established with two separate funds: one for job creation, and the other for job training. Job creation money would be modeled on the Community Development Block Grant formula and be administered by local elected officials. The second account would be based on the Workforce Investment Act and resemble the Jobs Corps. After all, local elected officials who are members of the National Black Caucus of State Elected Officials, National Association of Black County Officials, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, and the National Conference of Black Mayors are best suited to know where job funds should be allocated. Full employment is needed fast.
(Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO Black Leadership Forum, Inc.)